Without Sunshine Laws, public in dark
Living in Colorado, we’re lucky to enjoy more than 300 days of sunshine a year. We’re also fortunate to live in a democracy that supports the Freedom of Information Act and a state that has “Sunshine Laws” or open meetings and records laws.For the record, Operation Sunshine isn’t another government mission or some feel-good movement about the weather. It’s a drive by more than 100 newspaper editors and publishers across the state to increase public awareness about Colorado’s Sunshine Laws and the necessity for open government in a democracy.The Colorado Press Association picked the week of Sept. 15-21 to kick off “Operation Sunshine” because that week also marks the 215th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution being adopted.The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees Americans five freedoms – the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and “the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances” – is near and dear to my heart.A 2001 public opinion poll of 1,005 people showed that Americans strongly support open government and the concept of freedom of information, but they are “ambivalent about how to balance open news against privacy concerns,” according to a report from the First Amendment Center and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Among the report’s other key findings:-91 percent of respondents agreed that “even if I never need to view a public record myself, it is important that I have the right to do so.”-Nearly half of respondents said Americans have “too little” access to government records and 45 percent said the same about government meetings and hearings.-86 percent of respondents said they were “very concerned” when the government or private companies sold personal information previously collected about them. -56 percent of respondents said they would support new personal privacy laws even if its curtails journalists’ watchdog roles.-38 percent said they were “more concerned” about personal privacy since they’ve had access to the Internet.No doubt certain records and meetings like those dealing with medical records and sensitive national security matters should be closed. We don’t want terrorists using government documents as playbooks for our destruction.Still, the FOI Act and our state’s open records laws are powerful tools to prevent government corruption. Sunshine Laws aren’t just for snoopy reporters and editors. They’re for you, your neighbors and any other citizens who want to know what’s going on with government.If Gertrude Stein can say a “rose is a rose,” then we can rally around “public records are public records” and that double-speak means public access is important.For example, you should be able to find out if your child’s school bus driver has a criminal record, whether a local restaurant failed a health inspection and how much was paid for a nearby home.Colorado Sunshine Laws cover a wide range of government institutions ranging from school boards to state agencies and the legislature. Did you know that Gov. Bill Owens expanded access to public records last year when he signed House Bill 1359 into law? That law requires executive session discussions of a local or state public body to be recorded and requires a public body going into executive session to identify the matter to be discussed with as much detail as possible.Generally speaking, the more the public knows, the better served it is. Perhaps that’s why former President James Madison, who also was known as the Father of the Constitution, wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” His advice has stood the test of time indeed.Dorothy Bland is publisher of the Fort Collins Coloradoan.
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